Homegrown: The Harriott Collection
The contemporary art scene may be dominated by New York and LA, but Ithaca artists have much to offer, as a recent exhibit at the Johnson proved.
Showcasing a wide variety of local artwork from June 18-July 31, “Homegrown: The Harriott Collection” featured works recently acquired by the Johnson in memory of Mary Lou Harriott, a long-time supporter of local artists who passed away in December 2008.
While the exhibition revolves around local art, most of the work doesn’t reference Ithaca directly. George Cannon specifically alludes to other settings in two prints, using his titles to cue the viewer in to location. The first, a photograph of a weathered townhouse, set against a stark sky but vivid foreground greenery, was taken on a Virginia roadside. Similarly, the second print depicts a brilliant turquoise trailer offset by a harsh Phoenix climate. Another artist, Nancy Neaher Maas, also references non-Ithacan settings in her depiction of a “Native American woman weaving,” an inkjet print with the translucent hues and breathy feel of a watercolor. Only two works — Kent Loeffler’s photograph of Fuertes Observatory and Dede Hatche’s sharply focussed shot of a local Ithaca bakery against a fuzzy foreground — specifically reference Ithaca.
And yet, despite the seeming distance from Ithaca, the works are clearly influenced by the local environment. For example, many of the featured artists have taken advantage of Ithaca’s rural setting, choosing to create work depicting wildlife. Even though many of the works have similar subject matter, each testifies to the individual artist’s style. Two pieces, by Tracy Ziegler and Mary Kahn, exemplify the contrast in depicting similar subjects. While Ziegler’s mono-print of a realistic pair of birds is dark and moody, Kahn’s “5 Purple Martins” uses the birds as stylized silhouettes and graphic motifs.
Other works also reference the Ithaca landscape, as in Harry McCue’s “Moonlit Night — Shop,” a cool-colored oil painting of a lone cabin on a snowy evening. Throughout the exhibition, this tension between built and natural environments runs strong, such as Ziegler’s hazy mono-print of lonely house lit against the much larger backdrop of a dark lake and towering trees. Even Cannon’s pieces address the tension between built and natural environments, specifically focusing on the adverse effects of the natural on the built. In stunning detail, one can observe the chipping paint and dirty panels of the Virginia townhouse, the rust and scratches of the trailer. Loeffle’s photograph of Fuertes Observatory also comments on this tension, the observatory itself tiny compared to the jet-black sky occupying two-thirds of the composition.
However, none of the pieces captures this tension as well as Leslie Brack’s tiny oil painting, “Sunset” (2010) of a television set against a dark background. On the tiny television, one can just barely make out a bleeding orange sunset framed by black clouds. Like Loeffler, Brack has chosen to make the dark background a large portion of the composition, highlighting the disparity between the natural and the built. But, while Loeffler’s work attests to the natural sublime, Brack’s piece alludes to a human attempt to subvert nature for its own means and the terrible price paid for such an effort: a sunset in a box.
A Renewed Commitment to Contemporary Art
Known for its extensive collections in ancient Asian and African art, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum hasn’t received much recognition for its contemporary art collections. And with good reason — until recently.
Until the late 1990s, the museum didn’t even have a contemporary art curator, much less the funds necessary for purchasing contemporary pieces. However, former director Frank Robinson made contemporary art a priority. Although a devoted Rembrandt scholar, Robinson believes it important for college students “to see, experience, and understand the art of our own time,” as quoted on a museum placard.
Under Robinson, the museum hired a contemporary art curator and established a new fund, purchasing nearly sixty works in the past nine years. From June 8-July 24, several of these pieces, ranging from charcoal drawings to video and installation, were displayed in “A Renewed Commitment to Contemporary Art.”
Initially, the exhibit feels out of place, surrounded by marble Roman busts and seventeenth century Dutch oil paintings. Featuring only a dozen pieces, it’s tucked away in one of the corner galleries. And yet, despite its meager size and seemingly incongruous location, the exhibit boasts work from artists all over the world.
Much of the artwork addresses tensions between ethnicity and a more homogenous, global culture. For example, Ellen Gallagher’s photogravure “Bouffant Pride” (2003), depicting racially ambiguous portraits, raises questions about American cultural identity. Although the portraits appear African-American, they are printed on tan paper, making their skin look lighter. Gallagher also cut out the figures’ hair, revealing a yellow background and “blonde” hair. Robert Gober's “Hanging Man/Sleepy Man” (1989), a silkscreen on wallpaper juxtaposing images of a sleeping Caucasian man and a lynched African-American man, speaks to similar themes. Originally, the piece was part of an installation in which an entire room was covered in such wallpaper.
Although Japanese artist Yuken Teruya also addresses[JA1] with issues of globalization, her work deals more with environmental concerns and consumerism than with identity. In “Notice — Forest (Breakfast Street)” (2006), Teruya sculpted tiny trees from Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme bags. The trees are displayed inside the original bags, reminiscent of a Christmas tree inside a home — but with political undertones.
Still other works, such as Jessica Stockholder’s mono-print “Swiss Cheese Field 13” (2009), don’t address contemporary issues so much as contemporary forms and processes. Unlike a traditional mono-print, Stockholder’s work challenges the boundaries between printmaking and sculpture by boasting sculptural elements like fur, melted Styrofoam and fabric. Similarly, “Sequence One” (2009) by James Siena ‘79, a double-sided accordion folded book of prints, toes the line between print and sculptural object. Siena, the 2009-10 Eissner Artist of the Year, creates his work by following complicated algorithms, rendering numerical structures and patterns visually.
Like Siena’s work, much contemporary art is conceptual and experimental, making the exhibit challenging for the casual museumgoer. However, as Robinson himself noted, this challenge is one of the Johnson’s — and contemporary art’s — primary responsibilities towards its audience: “Art museums, especially on college campuses, have an obligation to show [contemporary] work, to put it in context, and to engage our audience.”